Gangster films blazed their way into the public consciousness in the depression era. There was something emboldening about watching on-screen tough guys like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson following through on their cocksure criminal ambitions. Even though crime doesn’t pay, and these villains met their fates riddled with bullets, their confidence and swagger inspired the masses. Cagney had an on-screen intensity balanced by a fast-talking sense of comic timing, a dancer’s grace, and a pugnacious spontaneity. He was a little big man, often shorter than most of his co-stars, but larger than life in his exuberant persona. The camera loved Cagney because there was no one else quite like him—a sensitive soul who took no crap from anyone; a stylized performer whose Lower East Side mannerisms were grounded in realism. Of all the studio-groomed movie stars, Cagney was something truly unique and special.
A song-and-dance man, Cagney ironically achieved fame playing the most ignoble of thugs in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (where he famously smashed a grapefruit into actress Mae Clarke’s face). He was beloved for his effortless charisma, showing up his stock company co-stars. And the tough-guy gangster image stuck even as Cagney appeared in slapstick comedies, westerns, and war pictures. He even took a stab at playing a lawman in the enjoyable B movie ‘G’ Men. But the image stuck, and the image-consciousness of beloved bad guys gives resonance to the best of the Warner Bros. gangster films, Angels With Dirty Faces.
By the time Angels came along, Hollywood was forced to barter with the Production Code to produce moral minded films that eschewed the gangster iconography that was a bad influence on children. (Remember the opening scene in Brian De Palma’s Scarface where Pacino waxes rhapsodic about seeing Bogart and Cagney movies as a kid?) Rocky Sullivan, the character James Cagney plays in Angels, embodies all the qualities we love about bad guys, and that’s reflected by the Dead End Kids, the streetwise neighborhood teens who idolize him. Sullivan’s fresh out of prison and rebuilding his place in the network of organized crime. The kids do their best to copy his gusto and swagger, despite the efforts of Sullivan’s childhood friend Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien, a stalwart and robust cleric in the Fighting Irish mold) to get them to follow the straight and narrow.
When they were the same age as the Dead End Kids, Sullivan and Connolly were an incorrigible pair, thieving and raising hell together in the slums of New York. Angels is able to convey the Gangs of New York thesis that “America was made in the streets” in its opening scene where the two boys are thwarted from a petty crime, and young Sullivan gets caught. Hurtled through the meat grinder of reform school and juvenile detention centers, Sullivan learns the way to be a racketeer while his pal Connolly became a priest. It’s your standard moral: there but for the grace of God goes I. But the conflict between gangster and priest for the souls of the children (even boys as pugnacious as the Dead End Kids) is a gripping one. It raises the question of how much the gangster movie star persona affects our youth.
As it turns out, it affects them quite a lot. It’s difficult to watch Angels without rooting for Rocky Sullivan, and James Cagney. He offers a real intensity and a sense of playfulness even as he’s drilling dead his fellow gangsters—his unrepentant cop killing tempered by his unwavering loyalty to his old buddy Father Connolly. Angels pointedly wonders why we look to Rocky Sullivan for heroism as it builds to its final, unforgettable scene. The climactic sequence is so famous and poignant that I’ll assume readers already know how it plays out; but those unfamiliar with Angels With Dirty Faces are advised to skip the rest of this review until they’ve rented the DVD.
After an entire film of soul grappling for the kids, paralleled by the rise of the American gangster and his inevitable fall (in a remarkably staged shoot-out punctuated by tear gas and a teary eyed Cagney practically screaming, “Come an’ get me, copper!”), Angels bothers to go a little further. Connolly visits Sullivan in prison and asks him to pretend to “turn yellow” on the long march to the electric chair. Cagney plays the scene as incredulous, wondering how on earth his best friend can ask him to pretend to go out like a coward and wipe out the image he’s created for himself as a legendary tough guy.
Angels has James Cagney as the star, which is always a plus for studio pictures of this era. But it also benefits greatly from having ace craftsman Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair. Curtiz didn’t bear the definitive stamp of a true auteur, but his great films are notable for their remarkable craftsmanship. He gives journeymen directors a good name, having directed the lively The Adventures of Robin Hood the same year as Angels and going on to make Casablanca. Heavily influenced by German expressionism but never so much that his movies feel leaden and thick, Curtiz knew how to keep things moving. And he does significantly more than that in Angels, with recurring visual motifs involving radios, newspapers, and other assorted media in the midst of the highly evocative slums.
“Print the legend” is part and parcel with “We are what we see,” and Cagney’s sense of showmanship in dealing with crooked cops and gun-toting gangsters is matched by Curtiz indicating, “Here’s how we see the show.” Curtiz, too, knows how to maximize the drama (his favorite camera move is a slow push in to an actor’s face, conveying thought under pressure), prolong it (holding on intense, drawn-out dolly shots of Sullivan and Connolly during the death march), and sustain it (using rapid cutting on Sullivan’s shadow as he cowers before death, then cutting to his hands gripping the radiator for dear life). If storytelling and inversion are the themes of Angels, it only works because Curtiz is one hell of a good storyteller.
The Dead End Kids are a lively lot with names like the Seven Dwarves (including Soapy, Bim, Pasty, and Crab). While it’s doubtful they can carry a film on their own, with middling “juvenile delinquent” pictures like Dead End and Crime School, they do make a memorable chorus of hero-worshiping Cagney wannabes here. Granted, they aren’t given many other imitative models. O’Brien is solid and holds his own as the less vivid Connolly, and would-be superstar Ann Sheridan (I Was a Male War Bride, Kings Row) is appropriately lovely and bold as Cagney’s love interest. And Humphrey Bogart, terrific in a second-fiddle villain role before The Maltese Falcon created the legend we know and love, is a beady-eyed sweating rodent whose name might as well be “He Who Gets Slapped”.
There’s maximum suspense in the slow walk toward death as Cagney puts on his most stoic, confident swagger—until the final, fateful moment where he turns into a shrieking, pathetic ball of jelly, refusing to face his death “like a man.” This display of “cowardice” is unparalleled in gangster movies, and the more Cagney begs and screams, the more we’re amazed at how he reduces the hero worship of gangsters to nothing. It’s Cagney’s finest hour in a career filled with great performances—perhaps because, as the actor himself attested, he kept it ambiguous as to whether Rocky Sullivan really had turned yellow at the very end.
Angels With Dirty Faces benefits from the Production Code because it forces the gangster film to acknowledge its nihilism. As fascinating as it is to see the American Dream gone to rot in films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, the Howard Hawks version of Scarface, and even The Roaring Twenties and White Heat (both of which Cagney filmed after Angels, resuming his bad guy persona), Angels is more conflicted in its analysis. We love Rocky Sullivan, yet we love him more when he shows true loyalty to his friend the priest, and does the right thing by going down not like a champ, but a chump.
There are noticeable scratches and artifacts on the print, and the digital remastering by Warner Home Video is a little spotty with noticeable shimmering. But it’s a welcome alternative to the murky grays and inconsistent shadows of the other Angels prints that have been lurking around cinema houses and late-night television for decades. The Dolby Digital mono tracks are thankfully well equalized, clean and distinctive-so audiences can enjoy the witty banter of Cagney and the Dead End Kids without impediment, not to mention the excellent sound design during the electrifying final prison scenes.
There’s a brief featurette about the production history of Angels with commentary by a variety of talking-head film critics intercut with clips from the picture. It’s a decent primer for the uninitiated. The commentary track by breathless historian Dana Polan provides the occasional insight into Hollywood studios bartering with the Production Code to approve scenes involving kidnapping and corrupt cops. One wishes he had more to say about Cagney’s battles with Warner Bros., and the massive contributions of director Michael Curtiz, but instead he toes the line with a highbrow academic analysis of visual motifs and some grating attempts at interpreting signs and symbols within the film (to paraphrase: “As you can see here, Rocky uses the tools of his enemies against them. Here, he employs their instrument of destruction-the telephone!”). No less cloying is Leonard Maltin, cheerfully hosting “Warner’s Night at the Movies” and featuring a 1938 Newsreel with a rousing FDR speech, a forgettable musical short entitled Out Where the Stars Begin (though Fritz Feld is quite funny as a “temperamental director” obviously modeled after the Teutonic Michael Curtiz), a very early Daffy Duck cartoon, and a Warner Bros. trailer gallery where you see the grandstanding Hollywood hype machine in place even in the Golden Era.
An essential gangster film featuring one of James Cagney’s best performances, this classic holds up beautifully even against a less than first-class DVD treatment.
Cast: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, The Dead End Kids Director: Michael Curtiz Screenwriter: John Wexley, Warren Duff Distributor: Warner Home Video Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 25, 2005 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.4.0
Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.
When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.
Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.
Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.
This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.
The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.
The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.
Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.
Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.
The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.
Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan
The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.3.5
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.
In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.
The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.
The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.
Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.
On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.
Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.
Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.
Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.4.0
The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.
Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.
The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.
In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.
A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video